Heavy cannabis use has been frequently associated with increased rates of mental illness and cognitive impairment, particularly amongst adolescent users. However, the neurobiological processes that underlie these associations are still not well understood. In this review, we discuss the findings of studies examining the acute and chronic effects of cannabis use on the brain, with a particular focus on the impact of commencing use during adolescence. Accumulating evidence from both animal and human studies suggests that regular heavy use during this period is associated with more severe and persistent negative outcomes than use during adulthood, suggesting that the adolescent brain may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of cannabis exposure. As the endocannabinoid system plays an important role in brain development, it is plausible that prolonged use during adolescence results in a disruption in the normative neuromaturational processes that occur during this period. We identify synaptic pruning and white matter development as two processes that may be adversely impacted by cannabis exposure during adolescence. Potentially, alterations in these processes may underlie the cognitive and emotional deficits that have been associated with regular use commencing during adolescence.
Keywords: Adolescence; Brain development; Cannabis; Cognition; Endocannabinoid; Mental illness.
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